In art school, I knew I wanted to paint watercolor landscapes but Max, although extremely talented at sculpting, was still at loose ends. As a child he had loved carving vegetables and arranging food and announced that he wanted to be a caterer but his father disapproved and his sister sneered. Instead he went to art school. The family thought Max could always teach art which seemed like a more respectable profession.
After graduating from school, we were married and at a small reception in a Philadelphia restaurant, Max had an epiphany. The guests were mulling around the uninspired buffet table, when Max suddenly got a mad gleam in his eyes.
He started fiddling with the vegetables circling the crudités dip, then took a table knife and started carving a cherry tomato into a tiny rosebud. His effort was noble but the result, clumsy. The guests stared at Max who was working feverishly.
“Max, what are you doing?’ I yelled. Perhaps I was too loud and sharp.
He looked at me, passion flaming in his eyes, “The vegetables don’t look good enough. They could evoke much more feeling!” He started carving again.
“Put that knife down,” I ordered, hands on hips, “you’re using the wrong tool. Learn to do it right!”
“I carved vegetables when I was young. I forgot how much it meant to me.”
Max looked at the ragged cherry tomato he was holding, dropped it back on the platter, stared at me and said, “I carved vegetables when I was young. I forgot how much it meant to me.” His eyes pleading, he said,” I want to go to garnishing school in Japan.”
“Let’s enroll you, then,” I said, biting into a broccoli floret.
“You don’t mind?”
“Not if it makes you happy.”
Max has been grateful to me ever since. Now he would sculpt with food.
We flew to Japan and Max attended the most famous mukimoto (garnishing with fruits and vegetables) school founded by the great master Tokanada who said, “In every fruit and vegetable there dwells hidden beauty that the imagination and talent of the student must uncover. This is the “Way of the Radish.”
Max’s year of study in Japan was a rigorous one. The students practiced using special sharp knives to create various cuts. At first the simple chop, mince, cube, shred, pare, peel, and later the more complicated brunoise, matchstick, battonet, paysanne, chiffonade, julienne. Once the students were comfortable with the knives, they advanced to creating flowers, leaves, birds, animals, portraits, fish, dragons, boats – whatever the skill and imagination of the student dictated.
Tokanada, aside from being a beloved teacher, was also a student of Zen. At the beginning of each day, he meditated with his students. He said it was a sign of respect for the food they were about to carve. As the students took up their knives, Tokanada bowed to the vegetables and then to the students and the work began.
At the end of the day, the students bowed to each other and then relaxed on their meditation cushions with bowls of warm Saki. Max told the story of his feeble attempt at garnishing during his wedding reception when he tried to carve a cherry tomato with a table knife. This caused much tittering on the part of the other students and another round of Saki was poured.
Tokanada laughed along with his students, then quoted Shunryu Suzuki, a famous Zen teacher, “When you can laugh at yourself, there is enlightenment.”
Sadly, just a few days ago, Max learned about Tokanada’s passing at almost 100. “I think I would like to have a little celebration to honor Tokanada,” he said as we drank champagne on the terraza. “And I would like to invite Cutlass and Bobo since they appreciate a well put-together fete. I will serve hot Saki instead of champagne.”
“Is that wise?” I asked. “Hot Saki is pretty strong stuff.”
“Cutlass and Bobo are professionals,” Max said. And in famous last words,
“They can handle it.”
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